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Impossible Owls: Essays by Brian Phillips

A globe-spanning, ambitious book of essays from one of the most enthralling storytellers in narrative nonfiction

In his highly anticipated debut essay collection, Impossible Owls, Brian Phillips demonstrates why he’s one of the most iconoclastic journalists of the digital age, beloved for his ambitious, off-kilter, meticulously reported essays that read like novels.

The eight essays assembled here—five from Phillips’s Grantland and MTV days, and three new pieces—go beyond simply chronicling some of the modern world’s most uncanny, unbelievable, and spectacular oddities (though they do that, too). Researched for months and even years on end, they explore the interconnectedness of the globalized world, the consequences of history, the power of myth, and the ways people attempt to find meaning. He searches for tigers in India, and uncovers a multigenerational mystery involving an oil tycoon and his niece turned stepdaughter turned wife in the Oklahoma town where he grew up. Through each adventure, Phillips’s remarkable voice becomes a character itself—full of verve, rich with offhanded humor, and revealing unexpected vulnerability.

Dogged, self-aware, and radiating a contagious enthusiasm for his subjects, Phillips is an exhilarating guide to the confusion and wonder of the world today. If John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead was the last great collection of New Journalism from the print era, Impossible Owls is the first of the digital age.

Praise for Impossible Owls:

“An absolute blast . . . [Phillips] is able to navigate extraordinary circumstances with curiosity, playfulness, and humility, and his enthusiasm is best seen in his extensive research within these communities and their histories. And this is why I couldn’t get enough of this book: Phillips is the perfect adventure guide ? down for anything, talented enough to translate the experience.”
Arianna Rebolini, Buzzfeed (Best Books of Fall 2018)

“As a journalist, Brian Phillips is willing to fall down a rabbit hole to uncover a mosaic of detail within a particular subject. This collection of essays presents some of his greatest examinations into the odd and intriguing . . . Philips takes readers down unexpected paths that are as world-expanding as they are entertaining.”
Wilder Davies, TIME

“Brian Phillips’s essays are out of this world: big-hearted, exhaustive, unrelentingly curious, and goddamned fun. It’s about time he graced us with this collection.”
Nick Moran, The Millions

“Again and again, Impossible Owls proves that Brian Phillips is a cultural codebreaker of the highest order, unlocking the hidden systems of our mad world. Hilarious, nimble, and thoroughly illuminating.”
– Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad

“Long-form narratives both diverting and engaging . . . [Phillips’s] keen sensitivities color each scene, and he rarely hides his feelings about the figures he meets. Phillips has fashioned a calling for himself as an American flâneur, casting out into post-colonial frontiers and marveling at the oddities he encounters from the comfortable distance of unsupervised creative prose . . . [Full of] genuine insight the author dredges up from his experiences as well as the sense of a full human mind at large in the world that so many of his recollections approximate.”
– Kirkus

“When Phillips, a jazzy John McPhee, ventures out into the world in pursuit of understanding of a place, mystery, vocation, or obsession, he is attention incarnate. The resulting prismatic descriptions power his vibrant, multidimensional essays, which are built on rich veins of research and further enlivened with crisply recounted conversations and convivially self-deprecating glimpses into his state of mind.”
– Booklist

“There is a section in Impossible Owls where Brian Phillips writes about tigers, and he notes that what’s most astonishing about the animal is not its size or power or beauty, but its capacity to disappear. This is an excellent description of a tiger, but also an excellent description of how Phillips writes. These are big, powerful, beautiful essays?but no matter how personal the content, he just seems to disappear into the paragraphs.”
– Chuck Klosterman, author of But What if We’re Wrong? and Eating the Dinosaur

“I most love Impossible Owls for how it sends me returning to the central question that I enjoy most in any work I find chasing after: what do we, as writers, owe a single idea, but to stretch it out beyond whatever our imaginations thought possible? I love that this is a book of highways and historical touchstones and large geographic shifts. But I also love that at the heart of those bigger things, there is the gentle touch of Brian Phillips underneath it all, creating a landscape for a reader to see not his work, but to better see themselves.”
– Hanif Abdurraqib, author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

“Impossible Owls takes you deep into worlds both far-flung and familiar ? tiger trails, tiny towns of the Yukon, Route 66, a Walmart parking lot. Brian Phillips riffs and reports with abiding curiosity and incisive humor. A fantastic, transporting read.”
– Jessica Hopper, author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

“The journeys that make up Impossible Owls lead us to some remarkable, unpredictable places, from the Alaskan wilderness to a supermarket parking lot in southern Japan, from an old movie palace in Moscow to the underground histories of northern Oklahoma. But these far-flung tales all share the same inspirational spark: Brian Phillips’ soulful, intrepid spirit, and his masterful ability at turning everyday curiosities into epic quests that you can’t stop reading.”
– Hua Hsu, author of A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific

“Brian Phillips’s Impossible Owls takes the American essay in new direction? these narratives are simultaneously stories of questing and strandedness. Characters and landscapes become knowable and disorienting. Tigers, royals, mysterious Russian artists and foreign countries are subjects of Phillips’s close, careful journalism, as well as representatives of all the glittering, un-graspable things that lie outside us. Witty, pensive, sometimes whimsical, always truthful, Impossible Owls is testament to Phillips’s gift for enchantment, and his genius for knowing exactly where our alienation from the world meets our sympathy for it.”
– Supriya Nair

“Entertaining, eclectic, and often insightful . . . Phillips’s narrative voice is consistently appealing, and often laugh-out-loud funny . . . Phillips’s essays leave readers with newfound appreciation for subjects they may not have considered before.”
– Publishers Weekly

“This eclectic collection from journalist Phillips combines in-depth reporting with personal histories to explore broadly the contemporary human condition . . . The subjects have broad appeal and would be enjoyed by anyone interested in New Journalism as a literary genre. Phillips’s essays are not only fascinating and thoroughly researched but written in a distinctive voice that conveys humor, awareness, and vulnerability.”
– Library Journal


Steinbeck did it, Orwell did it, Hemingway and Mark Twain, and so has this author, Brian Phillips, that is reportage, truth work from the world, layered out in great prose lucid and rhythmic, insightful and evocative, myriad of lives, nature, and peoples all vividly brought to life and memorably left to ruminate.

Interesting first essay amongst denizens of Alaska, a bear, sled-dog racing and the mysterious connection of disappearances and an underground pyramid.

Illuminating essay, Sea of Crises, where he mentions on a sumo wrestler, Hakuho, the greatest sumotori in the world, “It is time for Hakuho’s first match of the hatsu basho, the first grand tournament of the year.” Then goes to explain Tokyo with some great sentences, and his odd search for the novelist Yukio Mishima’s kaishakunin.

There is the haunting search and travel through New Mexico in Lost Highway essay, visiting the Trinity site where first atom bomb detonated, on UFO things and Area 51. Then stark informative and terrible stain of man’s wrongs, he mentions of things partaken around American histories of Route 66.

The Man-Eaters essay is walking with tigers, and in its path, through India he writes, “Of the twelve tigers I saw in India, one might have been a ghost; two were in water, eight were on land, and one was sleeping in a tree.”
The terrible fate of killed Tigers and the $10,000 price of the skin sold in Tibet, and the rest of the Tiger in Beijing for $100,000. The man-eating Bengal tigers, and the death toll in a village, and one Jim Corbett, a past author and hunter turned conservationist and the national park named after him.

There is a memoirist piece, In the Dark: Science Fiction in Small Town, he reflects on his Wrath of the Titans, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and X-Files viewing enjoyment, and days of youth that revolve around them.

Once and Future Queen, he opens with the weather and describing London with great craft with prose then goes on to lay out an originally done brief sketch and portrait of queen and family.

Revitalized essay writing of world histories that are revealing, stark, nostalgic, deep and informative.


Out in the Great Alone:
“Why was I so keen to do this? To make this trip for which I was patently unprepared? It had something to do with Alaska itself, its sheer hugeness and emptiness—731,449 people spread out over 570,640 square miles, a territory larger than Spain, France, and Germany combined holding slightly fewer people than the metro area of Dayton, Ohio. The density stats are a joke. The U.S. average is 87.4 inhabitants per square mile. The forty-fifth-most-dense state, New Mexico, thins that down to 17. Alaska has 1.28. And more than 40 percent of Alaskans live in one city! Factor out metropolitan Anchorage and you’re looking at about three-quarters of one person per square mile, in a land area ten times the size of Wisconsin.”

“Each year five out of every thousand Alaskans go missing. People vanish without a trace at twice the rate of Outside. Start reading about why the disappearances happen and you’ll encounter rumors of a dark or underground pyramid, a huge structure, bigger than the Great Pyramid at Giza, buried beneath the ice west of Denali.”

“How far I’d come! Hundreds and hundreds of miles to reach this place. You couldn’t fathom how huge Alaska was until you’d seen it from a Super Cub, one horizon crawling into the next, day after day after day. And the white rock in front of me was the end.”


Sea of Crises
“When he comes into the ring, Hakuho, the greatest sumotori in the world, perhaps the greatest in the history of the world, dances like a tropical bird, like a bird of paradise.”

“Hakuho bends into a deep squat. He claps twice, then rubs his hands together. He turns his palms slowly upward. He is bare-chested, six feet four and 350 pounds. His hair is pulled up in a topknot. His smooth stomach strains against the coiled belt at his waist, the literal referent of his rank: yokozuna, horizontal rope. He lifts his right arm diagonally, palm turned down to show he is unarmed. He repeats the gesture with his left. He lifts his right leg high into the air, tipping his torso like a watering can, then slams his foot down onto the clay. When it strikes, the crowd of thirteen thousand men, women, and children inside the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Japan’s national sumo stadium, shouts in unison: “Yoisho!”—Come on! Do it! He slams down his other foot: “Yoisho!” It’s as if the force of his weight were striking the crowd in the stomach. He squats again, arms held winglike at his sides, and bends forward at the waist until his back is almost parallel with the floor. With weird, sliding thrusts of his feet, he inches forward, gliding across the ring’s sand, raising and lowering his head in a way that’s vaguely serpentine while slowly straightening his back. By the time he’s upright again, the crowd is roaring.”

“Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village four hundred years ago, and now: thirty-five million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said to end, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos ten stories tall. Crowds of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversized headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Throngs of black-suited businessmen. Twelve hundred miles of railway, a thousand train stations, endless alleys, houses without addresses, streets without names. Immense, unnavigable, and yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained (if you are not from there, as I was not from there) by the logic of a dream.”


Lost Highway
“Area 51” was probably not even Area 51’s real name. We don’t know where the term came from. It first shows up in a declassified CIA document from 1967, where three “Oxcart” planes—a code name for the Lockheed A-12 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft—are said to be deploying “from Area 51 to Kadena” for surveillance of North Vietnam. Beyond that, the name’s origin disappears into a tangle of competing hypotheses. The base has been a locus for UFO sightings since the 1950s, when Project Aquatone, the U-2 spy plane program, started sending very high-altitude aircraft over the Nevada desert under conditions of extreme secrecy. For civilians on the ground, those were UFOs in the technical sense, unidentified objects that flew. But Area 51 only became mainstream famous in 1989, when a man named Bob Lazar gave an interview on Las Vegas TV.”

“On Route 66, too, Native American imagery was everywhere. There were genres and subgenres of it; in the old photos, it’s haunting. Cabins in the shape of wigwams. Neon headdresses looming over motels. Arrowheads for sale. Tomahawk-brandishing “chiefs” on billboards for roadside “trading posts.” Anything that could be used to sell a pack of cigarettes to a 1950s driver. Any form of cultural iconography that could be pumped full of local-color neon.
What was missing from these scenes? Correct: anything resembling actual Native American culture. Also anything resembling actual Native Americans.
That’s less true in real life, of course, than in old photos. West of Seligman, Arizona, Route 66 passes through the Hualapai Indian Reservation; there are casino hotels here and there along the way. Still, there’s a feeling of erasure here that’s different from what you find in, say, Massachusetts. This may be because the landscape itself holds such emptiness. There are fewer protective layers between you and American history. That is: You know that a history of invasion, displacement, and (let’s use the word) genocide permeates almost every place you go in this country. But most of the time, you are encouraged toward distraction and repression by everything around you, all the noise and glitter of contemporary culture—here’s Dunkin’ Donuts; there’s the Guggenheim Museum; is that corgi in a muumuu? Here, none of that operates. On Route 66, you are even subtly coaxed into thinking about the destruction of ancient cultures, of culture itself, by the general Ozymandias fading away of the Americana through which you’re passing.
This started to affect the way I thought about the UFO phenomenon. I started to see it as less a problem of individual experience than one of cultural psychology. For a reference point here, think about the peculiar valence the word “alien” has in the Southwest—about what other group, besides extraplanetary visitors, it’s often applied to. Notice anything sinister there? Is it so crazy to imagine the UFO narrative as a kind of disguised psychic reckoning with the guilt-terror of white xenophobia? The kind of thing that you—millions of you; of us—can’t talk about, so you remake it as a myth? All those people, all those histories, erased; where do they go? What happens to your consciousness of them, when almost every feature of your lived reality tells you not to be conscious of them? Maybe, I thought, what happens is that you bring them back as dreams, as nightmares, as surreal figures of punishment and transformation. As beings who come for you in the dark.”

Once and Future Queen
“London, late summer, the trees a vault breathing autumn, the pavement a history-book map tracing a dwindling empire of rain. Traffic pushing through the evening, along the parks, around the monuments, a stream of headlamps parting for angels and cannons and kings. England in September: The sky is gray but the air is blue. Beside the river, the crowds lined up beneath the Eye are craning their heads back to take pictures of the sky’s steel miracle, the plexus of spokes and beams; above the river, the crowds inside the Eye are craning their heads forward to take pictures of two little gingerbread castles, Parliament and Big Ben, lit up for the night like sweets wrapped in gold foil. Twilight, a rider on a different Ferris wheel, coming slowly to the earth. Faces of walkers along the Thames, and of cyclists along the Thames, and, half glimpsed, of drivers along the Thames, moving in and out of shadow like a word on the tip of your tongue. Buildings shining out of puddles, upside down. This present moment: darkening city, settling itself down to begin, once more, the work of becoming yesterday.”